Today is another episode in celebration of Pride Month. Our guest, Michelle MiJung Kim (she/her), is a queer immigrant Korean American woman writer, speaker, activist, and entrepreneur. She is the author of “The Wake Up,” where she shares foundational principles often missing in today’s mainstream conversations around “diversity and inclusion” and urges readers to go beyond performative allyship to enacting real transformation within ourselves and in the world.
Michelle is also CEO and co-founder of Awaken, a leading provider of interactive equity and inclusion education programs facilitated by majority BIPOC educators, where she has consulted hundreds of organizations and top executives from Fortune 500, tech giants, nonprofits, and government agencies to spark meaningful change.
In this episode, Michelle shares her immigrant story, coming out as queer in high school, and how it began her political activism journey.
Michelle also tells us who and what inspired her to become an activist, why she is passionate about DEI and social justice, and what led her to write her book.
Finally, we’ll hear Michelle’s insights on how we can be a part of the solidarity movement in more ways that are more than just changing profile photos, dealing with trade-offs and contradictions, and how we can truly incorporate racial equity and social justice in the workplace and the community.
How people can participate authentically in social justice movements
“The most sustaining why that I talk about in the book is the one in which we can see ourselves in it. So, I don’t want to see white people wanting to dismantle racism or white supremacy just because they have people of color friends in their lives. I want white people to understand that white supremacy isn’t just killing people of color. It’s also robbing them of their humanity. I want men to not want to dismantle misogyny or sexism or the patriarchy just because they have women in their lives that they care about. I also want men to want to do this because they understand that the same forces that are killing and hurting women in their lives are the same forces that are robbing men of their ability to be vulnerable, their ability to stay at home with their children, their ability to talk about mental health openly. So, these issues aren’t just about helping marginalized people. All of these issues are connected in such a way that, if we don’t dismantle all of them, they’re eventually going to come for us, too.
So, I think the why question is such a fundamental way for us to begin this work in a more authentic way that puts us on the map, that sometimes we like to think of as totally unrelated to our lives. So, I want more people to feel invested in this because it’s about all of us. It’s about reclaiming our humanity as much as it is about supporting those who are marginalized, and therefore, that this work must be considered important and urgent for all of us.”
Defining performative allyship
“Performative allyship, to me, is similar to virtue signaling, when people are so quick to claim that they are in solidarity with certain movements or certain marginalized people and groups that they are quick to claim that identity before actually having done the work or before they are actually committed to doing the work in a sustainable way.
And so, for me, that quick, urgent desire to claim that you are a good person, that you are an ally to a certain community, can sometimes be the very barrier between you actually living the values that you want to live, because you desiring to do something but without actually having sat with the necessary introspection can sometimes lead to unintended harm that could burden more marginalized people rather than being supportive or being seen as true solidarity.”
What does “The Wake Up” mean
“When I titled the work “The Wake Up,” it wasn’t just about us waking up to other people’s struggles and the injustices that are around us in the world. It was also about our waking up to ourselves, our waking up to our capacity to change and transform, but also our capacity to wake up to our complicity in some of the systems of oppression that we’re so quick to denounce.
What I want to see is all of us taking the work of self-transformation seriously even before we claim that we are out there ready to march alongside other people. So, starting with ourselves begins with our questioning the why. Why are we doing this work? Why do I feel compelled to be a part of this social justice movement? “
On trade-offs and living in contradictions
“We will all have to, at some point, be willing to give up something in order to move the movement forward, whether it is our resources, our positions of power, our privilege. So, when it comes to actually doing the things that are in alignment with our set values, what are we actually willing to trade off?
When it comes to doing this work, there will be some trade-offs that we have to be honest about making. Or when we’re not ready to or willing to make those trade-offs, then let’s be honest about why and interrogate where that fear is coming from. And they could be very valid reasons.
So, these are some real decisions, real trade-offs and sacrifices sometimes that we are needing to make in order to stay in alignment with our values. We’re not shooting for perfection, but we are trying to be honest throughout this process. So, I don’t ask people to ever be perfect in their decision-making because I’m certainly not. And I live in contradictions all the time. But in these moments of contradictions, can we be courageous enough to be honest with ourselves and be willing to do the work in order for us to be closer in alignment with our values every single day?”
On holding onto hope and not giving in to cynicism
“I think holding onto hope is such a powerful and courageous thing for us to do, and to remember that change is indeed possible, and it’s not only possible but that it’s happening every single day all around us. And I think of Mariame Kaba, black abolitionist, somebody who I really admire and look up to and learn from. Her quote is, hope is a discipline. And that’s the thought that I want to leave folks with because I think we need a lot of hope these days, and to remember that a better world, a more just, inclusive, safe, equitable world is possible and that it is being built right now by so many people with the same vision. So, don’t lose hope. Don’t give in to cynicism. Claim the corner of your life and the world that you’re in charge of. And make that your frontline where you do the work to create change that you want to see.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas Alumni Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today, we’re joined by Michelle MiJung Kim. Michelle is class of 2011 undergrad here at Haas. And she is just a force of nature. I’ve watched a couple of your videos (laughs). And I am about to download your book. So, we definitely have to talk about those things. But first off, welcome to the podcast, Michelle.
[00:29] Michelle: Thank you so much for having me, Sean.
[00:31] Sean: Before we dive into your work and your life and your book, love to hear your origin story—where you’re from, where you grew up, how you grew up.
[00:41] Michelle: Hi, everybody. It’s nice to be here. My name is Michelle MiJung Kim. I use she/her pronouns. I was actually born and raised in South Korea.
[00:51] Sean: Wow.
[00:52] Michelle: And I moved to the states when I was 13, which a lot of people are surprised by, because I don’t have an accent. But there’s a whole story behind that. I tried really, really, really hard to lose my accent. As soon as I came, people told me that I needed to pick a white-sounding name. So, hence, Michelle. And actually, my Korean name, MiJung, I only recently reclaimed and started using publicly. So, I appreciate you pronouncing it correctly, asking me if it’s something that I wanted to use. And the answer is absolutely yes.
And I immigrated here via San Diego. My dad was undocumented for over a decade. And we grew up on a low income in San Diego. And when I was in high school, I came out as being queer bisexual, which was the beginning of my political activism journey. I was causing all kinds of good trouble in high school and college. I was often called into the principal’s office in high school for organizing protests and such and such.
And I decided to major in business because one white boy told me that I couldn’t. So, I was told that this was a really difficult major to get into. And when I started asking questions about it, he looked at me and said, “Oh, you’ll never get in. It’s too late.” And that lit the fire up my butt, and I decided that I’m going to prove him wrong, which says a lot about me as a person, I think, this little story. So, I ended up getting into Haas. And that really began my understanding around the world of business. I was still a very active organizer in college. I started my own student organization while on campus called Queer Straight Alliance, now called QSU, Queer Student Union. And I always thought that I was going to go into the world of activism full-time or joining a nonprofit somehow, but I ended up doing a complete 180 after graduating from school and decided to pursue a career in management consulting. And I did that because I needed money. I needed money to bring my mom over here because she was still living in South Korea. We were separated after I had immigrated to the states.
And that was my first encounter with this world of “corporate diversity and inclusion.” I’m putting that in air quotes. And I remember feeling so disillusioned by the way that corporate America was talking about diversity and inclusion coming from the social justice space, from the grassroots activism space, and feeling like there were no real ties to social justice principles and the ways that people were talking about diversity and inclusion. It felt so diluted and whitewashed and often white-led that it felt really difficult for me to bring in all parts of what defined me as a person until then. And I struggled a lot with the culture, the hierarchical culture, the culture that taught me that I am too young, too inexperienced to all of the things that don’t fit into the standards of what they were looking for.
And so, I ended up not lasting very long in management consulting and decided to quit. And I thought it would be much better for me to go into tech. And the world of tech was a whole nother level of culture shock, in a way that, in the beginning, I had a lot of fun because it was so different than corporate America in terms of the casualness and how people were openly welcoming me to be myself. But there were also so many layers of performativeness, if you will, around how people were thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And unfortunately, after experiencing some really toxic incidents, I decided to leave tech altogether with a really good friend of mine. And we decided to start a company called Awaken that provides equity education to different organizations. Ran that for about four and a half years and got really, really, really burnt out. And I was struggling a lot with depression, anxiety, all the while the company was doing really, really well. And in the height of every company wanting equity education work after the murder of George Floyd and early in 2021, I decided to sunset the business as is and decided to write a book about my experiences—both my lived experiences as a queer Korean-American woman in this country, as well as the lessons learned that I got from working with so many organizations and leaders around their equity journey. And that’s what led me to be where I am today.
[05:53] Sean: Wow. I feel like, if you don’t mind me asking you, were there any formative experiences in your own childhood or after you immigrated to the US that made you, how do I say this, that really inspired you to become an activist?
[06:11] Michelle: I think I was always… Well, let me think about this. Because I remember growing up in South Korea. I didn’t have the language to talk about the experiences that I was having. But in retrospect, there were so many things that I was taught as a child from my grandpa around the importance of activism.
So, my grandpa was a philosopher. He was an educator. And he was also an activist. I didn’t really know much about that until I started inquiring about it with my family members and my mom. But I remember him teaching me some of the lessons that now I understand to be around activism, where he really believed in many, many social justice issues that were important in Korea, like labor movements, organizing labor, and women’s rights, and even just the little things like you have to respect every single person that you meet, including a bus driver, make sure you thank them, and just talking about how important it is for us to understand where our food comes from and the hardships that farm workers face in Korea, and the political corruption. He talked a lot about political corruption and also the experiences that he and my grandma had growing up in a country that was once colonized. So, they lived through Japanese occupation and colonization of Korea.
And I think about all of these nuggets of wisdom that I received from my grandpa, having had such a profound impact on me and my upbringing, without even realizing it. And so, when I came to this country and I started learning about the history of this country’s activism work, as well as oppression that so many marginalized groups face, starting with being, as a woman, learning about women’s rights issues, and after I came out as queer, really understanding the impacts of homophobia, transphobia in this country, and also just experiencing bullying in school for not speaking English well, for looking different, and also just viscerally experiencing what it’s like to be low-income in this country. All those experiences really added to my being incredibly angry about the society that I was a part of, that for me felt like a condition that I was constantly fighting within.
So, when I started understanding the kinds of work that other people were doing to change that, I became really inspired. And I was fortunate enough to meet so many other people who were organizing to create a better future, who were kind enough to teach me and help me learn the language, help me understand the theories that weren’t being taught in schools, even, for me to be able to understand and put language to the experience that I’ve lived that I know viscerally in my body but didn’t have the words to describe. So, once I started learning the language, it felt incredibly liberating and empowering because now I can describe what it is that I’m experiencing. So, I think all those small experiences led me to being the person that I am today and the way that I understand the world.
[09:53] Sean: Wow, did you have any… were there any activists early on that you really looked up to?
[09:58] Michelle: Yeah, so many. So, when I was in high school, I ended up going to this queer youth camp that was happening at UC Santa Barbara. I don’t remember how I found out about it. It happened once. It happened once, and I happen to be a part of that pilot cohort of young people who went to the camp. And no one else was able to experience the magic that I did, where I was invited to learn activism skills. And there were just college students, just a few years older than me, who were teaching high school youth about how to organize on campus knowing our rights, understanding even things like our own identities, because I was just coming out and I was just trying to make sense of my identity because I thought I was straight my entire life. And my world turned upside down when I started having feelings for another woman. And so, understanding my own identities and understanding how I can combat bullying in school and how we should be thinking about safe sex, so all the education that I wasn’t getting from school, these young people who are only a few years older than me, were able to teach me in a very inclusive, welcoming, and an empowering setting.
And some of those people are still doing activism work. So, I remember folks like Kalaya’an Mendoza or Steph Lee. These are people who are still doing their incredible work in different corners of the world today. And of course, I read Audre Lorde, who’s a black lesbian feminist, poet, and writer, whose book, “Sister Outsider,” really changed my life.
And I also think about what it would have been like for me to have more access to a knowledge of Korean queer figures, because I don’t think that I… I don’t remember when I was younger knowing that many queer Asian people, period. So, for me, meeting these a little bit older people who are Asian—so Kalaya’an is Filipino, and Steph is Korean—was life-changing. And I could understand that I don’t have to do this alone, that I had a community that I can rely on to support me and to make sense of this very chaotic time that I was living in and guide me through it. And I think I was really, really lucky to have found that. And I know not many people… I know a lot of people are not that lucky in terms of navigating these times with other people.
[12:40] Sean: Well, your book titled “The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change,” you talked about a couple of things that I had some questions about. I’ll just give a brief description, if you don’t mind, to our listeners. As we become more aware of various social injustices in the world, many of us want to be part of the movement toward positive change. But sometimes, our best intentions cause unintended harm, and we fumble. We might feel free to say the wrong thing and feel guilt for not doing or knowing enough. Sometimes, we might engage in performative allyship rather than thoughtful solidarity, leaving those already marginalized further burden and exhausted. My first question was, define for us, what is performative allyship? What does that mean?
[13:26] Michelle: Performative allyship, to me, is similar to virtue signaling, when people are so quick to claim that they are in solidarity with certain movements or certain marginalized people and groups that they are quick to claim that identity before actually having done the work or before they are actually committed to doing the work in a sustainable way. And a good example is a lot of companies that are quick to release public statements around their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But when you peel back the layers, none of their leaders have actually done any of the work. So, the experiences on the part of the marginalized people is one of cognitive dissonance where they see the public statements that are coming, but their lived experiences inside these organizations don’t live up to that promise.
And so, for me, that quick, urgent desire to claim that you are a good person, that you are an ally to a certain community, can sometimes be the very barrier between you actually living the values that you want to live, because you desiring to do something but without actually having sat with the necessary introspection can sometimes lead to unintended harm that could burden more marginalized people rather than being supportive or being seen as true solidarity.
[14:58] Sean: I can think of some other examples like changing your profile picture to whatever solidarity movement.
[15:07] Michelle: The black squares?
[15:08] Sean: Yeah, the black squares or whatever it is. I guess, for people listening, even for myself, what is a better way to approach this? Because in some ways, you want to show support very quickly. You don’t want to wait a month before showing support. But at the same time, you’re absolutely right. It is not just a, “All right, I changed my profile picture. I stand with you,” and nothing else changes in my behavior, in the way I think, in how I educate myself or inform myself what’s going on. What are some suggestions for people?
[15:43] Michelle: I always recommend—and in the book, too, I write about the importance of starting within ourselves. So, for me, when I titled the work “The Wake Up,” it wasn’t just about us waking up to other people’s struggles and the injustices that are around us in the world. It was also about our waking up to ourselves, our waking up to our capacity to change and transform, but also our capacity to wake up to our complicity in some of the systems of oppression that we’re so quick to denounce.
So, for me, what I want to see is all of us taking the work of self-transformation seriously even before we claim that we are out there ready to march alongside other people. So, starting with ourselves begins with our questioning the why. Why are we doing this work? Why do I feel compelled to be a part of this social justice movement? Why do I feel compelled to change my profile picture to be a black square to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement? And for me, the different whys that I’ve seen that people use from businesses using the business case, and I know that so many people who are probably tuning in are familiar with the business case, where people say, if you have a diverse team, you’re more likely to be profitable, you’re more likely to be innovative, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, that’s a why that I feel has a very short lifespan. And I think that it’s difficult for us to expect social justice outcomes with a why rooted in capitalism. And so, I want us to be more critical about how we approach this work from the beginning. And I know that some people use the why of, well, we do this work because it’s just the right thing to do. And I think that that’s also sometimes not a sustainable why, because the right thing to do sounds good, and it makes it a moral imperative, but it also can dwindle very easily, as soon as you realize you have to give up something, as soon as you realize that there is a cost.
[17:52] Sean: Right, my right for who.
[17:53] Michelle: Yeah, exactly. And that there is a distancing of yourself from the issue at hand, that this feels almost as charity work, that this is not something that “I’m doing out of the goodness of my heart to support those who are less fortunate than me.” It gives off that saviory vibe where you position yourself as a moral savior who is coming to the rescue to help other people whenever you can. But you don’t really see yourself as being a part of the problem and the solution.
And by that, I mean the most sustaining why that I talk about in the book is the one in which we can see ourselves in it. So, I don’t want to see white people wanting to dismantle racism or white supremacy just because they have people of color friends in their lives. I want white people to understand that white supremacy isn’t just killing people of color. It’s also robbing them of their humanity. I want men to not want to dismantle misogyny or sexism or the patriarchy just because they have women in their lives that they care about. I also want men to want to do this because they understand that the same forces that are killing and hurting women in their lives are the same forces that are robbing men of their ability to be vulnerable, their ability to stay at home with their children, their ability to talk about mental health openly. So, these issues aren’t just about helping marginalized people. All of these issues are connected in such a way that, if we don’t dismantle all of them, they’re eventually going to come for us, too.
So, I think the why question is such a fundamental way for us to begin this work in a more authentic way that puts us on the map, that sometimes we like to think of as totally unrelated to our lives. So, I want more people to feel invested in this because it’s about all of us. It’s about reclaiming our humanity as much as it is about supporting those who are marginalized, and therefore, that this work must be considered important and urgent for all of us.
[20:12] Sean: Thank you. You were very coherent. I just love how powerful… I mean, it sounds like you prepared for it for like a… Have you done a TED Talk yet?
[20:23] Michelle: Not yet, maybe one day.
[20:25] Sean: Because you would be amazing for it.
[20:27] Michelle: Thank you, Sean.
[20:29] Sean: Well, I think a lot of things you said there really touched me deeply because I’ve been having these feelings and trying to get a better understanding of myself as to why is it I care about these things, and how does it impact me. And it may sound selfish, but I think a lot of things, right? Just like it’s always been said, to love others, you have to first love yourself. And I think you’re absolutely right because I think what our world lacks in terms of empathy is that people are not even empathetic towards themselves.
[20:59] Michelle: Yes.
[21:00] Sean: Right?
[21:01] Michelle: Mm-hmm.
[21:02] Sean: Like, enough. And because we’re constantly distracted by social media, we’re constantly outwardly drawn that there is no time or we’re not making enough time for ourselves. And I think, if there’s one good thing that came out of the pandemic, of which I think there were a lot of things that actually came out of the pandemic that were good, it actually gave people some space to say, “Hey, take a look at yourself. Yes, take a look at the world, but first, take a look at yourself.”
[21:28] Michelle: This whole topic around self-empathy and self-compassion I think is such an important one that I want to put into the context of social justice work, too, because sometimes we like to think of this work around self-care as very surface-level. We’ll take a bubble bath. We’ll go to a spa day. We’ll take a day-off and meditate. But we don’t actually talk about the conditions that make us to need self-care over and over again. We are in the midst of so much heinous violence. We are processing so much collective trauma. And sometimes, self-care alone isn’t going to be able to heal us. And I want to create a world in which we don’t have to experience the same type of trauma over and over and over again.
And I also want us to practice what it looks like and what it feels like for us to prioritize ourselves in a world that doesn’t want to see us do that, especially for people of color, especially for differently marginalized people, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re a non-binary person, you’re trans, queer, disabled, Muslim, and seek people who are constantly… all of the marginalized people who are constantly targeted by violence, but also who are constantly marginalized in different ways in our society. And we have to often… we hear from people, especially in the black community, the saying is you have to be twice as good in order to get the same amount of respect and success that white people get in a world that expects us to make ourselves expendable and disposable and overworked and tired and traumatized constantly, us prioritizing our care, our prioritizing our own mental health, physical health, our joy, and centering our healing actually is a very revolutionary thing that I don’t think we give enough credit for.
So, when we say no, actually, I’m not going to go out and divulge all my traumatic experiences only to educate white people who don’t get it or, with the hope of moving the movement forward, I’m going to exhaust myself to the bone. I think that we’re actually doing exactly the opposite of what we are trying to solve for, which is a future where we are more free, more safe, and more joyful. And I want to urge all marginalized people to start claiming healing and joy and freedom now by prioritizing ourselves and not treating ourselves and our happiness, our fullness, our wholeness as being disposable. If our wellbeing, if our wholeness is the cost of our liberation movement, then that cost is already too high. And that’s counter to the work that we’re trying to do.
So, I’m starting to take that work a lot more seriously. I didn’t for a very long time. I thought that I needed to do more all the time in order to move our conversations forward, in order to educate people who are well-intentioned. And I saw myself as being almost a martyr, and that I needed to exhaust myself and work myself to the ground to be able to say that I’ve done something for the community. But what I didn’t realize was that I was making myself expendable in the name of movement. And that was counter to my philosophy and my politics.
[25:21] Sean: I think relatedly, it’s a perfect segue into what I wanted to bring up, because you… I watched this talk that you did recently. And it woke me up a bit in many ways because you had… I’ll just quote what you said. You said, in corporate America, a lot of times, consultants are hired in or brought in to coach women how to be more confident, when that’s not really… The issue is how do we teach people in positions of power how to stop doubting women? And I was like, these are the kinds of examples that really shine lights on what it is that people in positions of privilege and power can do that really are impactful, that aren’t threatening to their identity. I think sometimes when we talk about these things, people feel like, “Well, I have to give in,” or something. It’s like you can just act differently. You can act more respectfully. Anyway, I wanted to let you hear you talk about that a little bit more and give us more examples.
[26:28] Michelle: Yes. And I love that that resonated, because what I’m trying to shift away from is putting the onus of surviving onto already marginalized people. And rather than teaching people how to survive, I’m trying to create change in the conditions and impact those who have direct control over how our systems are shaped and how our conditions are shaped. And I want us to move away from overburdening already marginalized people, having to do more work to navigate these treacherous social patterns that are built to oppress, versus how do we focus our target on the systems and people who are in positions of power, who are creating the conditions that people have to tread through. And so, I’m reacting to what you’re saying about, sometimes, it could feel really threatening to those in positions of power to hear some of the demands that people have in order to create more equitable and just societies. And while I understand, sometimes, that could be a difficult predicament, I also want to challenge people to sit with the discomfort and to sit with why it is that being asked to give up something that you have might feel like something that you just aren’t able to do, right?
[27:58] Sean: Right, or that you’re losing something.
[28:01] Michelle: Yes.
[28:02] Sean: And I think, tying it to what you were saying earlier, I think what woke me up was, it is just we haven’t seen a broader perspective as to how this change can benefit us, right?
[28:13] Michelle: Yeah, right. And I think the losing something part is interesting because I do talk about this in the book where we will all have to, at some point, be willing to give up something in order to move the movement forward, whether it is our resources, our positions of power, our privilege. And I think that’s the tension, because sometimes we want to think of this work as just happy go lucky, everybody gets together, solidarity, love and rainbows and glitters. But that’s because our current systems and our current society is built to exploit rooted in the power imbalance, in order to correct that, there will be some trade-offs that we all have to make.
And to be more concrete, I’m talking about for an organization, if they truly want to prioritize equity and justice and access, I’ve had to have difficult conversations with executives around, are you willing to slow down in order for you to create a more accessible product that has been tested for accessibility? Or are you willing to put more money towards recruiting in places that you haven’t recruited from? Are you willing to forgo quick referral hiring candidates who have been vetted by your current employees in order for you to build a more diverse pipeline and for you to have more equitable access to your company’s opportunities?
These are not easy trade-offs, especially for fast-growing tech companies that I have often worked with. And these are explicit conversations that we actually have to have. At a nonprofit, we had a very tough conversation around the organization’s willingness to admit that they’ve made some mistakes in the past around layoffs that predominantly impacted black women. But admitting that would have gotten them into more legal risk of being sued because they have just admitted wrongdoing race-based discrimination. But every employee understands that that’s what happened, and they’re asking for accountability by the way of acknowledging what happened. So, when it comes to actually doing the things that are in alignment with our set values, what are we actually willing to trade off?
At the individual level, we see all the time people wanting to solve the issue of homelessness. And yet, when the bill comes to build homeless shelters and accessible housing in their neighborhoods, most people will vote no, not in my neighborhood, because that’s going to drive my housing price down. So, when it comes to doing this work, there will be some trade-offs that we have to be honest about making. Or when we’re not ready to or willing to make those trade-offs, then let’s be honest about why and interrogate where that fear is coming from.
And they could be very valid reasons. I talked very openly about in the book, and this was a really hard thing to do. When I bought my first house I decided to go with this bank that is doing horrible things to their workers and who has a very bad track record of treating social justice issues as a complete non-priority issue. And I decided to go with that bank because they gave me the best rate. And I felt disgusted with myself. But what I had to remember was what the work that I needed to do afterwards was why even knowing these things, I was unable to make that trade-off. And in the future, if I’m asked to make these decisions, what would enable me to stay more in alignment with my set values and not feel like a hypocrite? And how do I reconcile these contradictions that I’m living in all the time? And for me, it was around my deep-seated money trauma, having lived through multiple bankruptcy that my dad experienced in his lifetime and having had something one day and then all of that being ripped away from me the next day. All of those things impact how I work with money.
And so, when I was going through this very confusing process that is the home-buying experience and I was presented with this opportunity, I couldn’t say no. And I hated myself for it. So, these are some real decisions, real trade-offs and sacrifices sometimes that we are needing to make in order to stay in alignment with our values. We’re not shooting for perfection, but we are trying to be honest throughout this process. So, I don’t ask people to ever be perfect in their decision-making because I’m certainly not. And I live in contradictions all the time. But in these moments of contradictions, can we be courageous enough to be honest with ourselves and be willing to do the work in order for us to be closer in alignment with our values every single day?
[33:35] Sean: Wow, thank you for sharing that. Thank you for being so brutally honest because it reminds me that, yes, we all live in contradictions. But if anything, we need to bring more awareness to these contradictions and, like you say, put more thought into it, put more introspection, and try to figure out what we can do about it, versus just brushing on the rug and saying, well, that happened, right?
[33:56] Michelle: Right.
[33:57] Sean: And not thinking twice about it.
[34:00] Michelle: This is something that I’m starting to talk about more because I feel the fear that people have, especially white men in positions of power have around diversity, equity, and inclusion work. And you already touched on it, the sense of loss, the fear of losing something that they have, fear of losing the position and the power and the privilege that they have. And then that’s a real thing that I want to acknowledge. And I think what needs to be challenged is the belief that what they have, all of the things that they have were even theirs to begin with, that we live in a society that has blanketly accepted the fact that the power and the privilege and the resources are already belonging to one group of people, and that they have internalized those resources in a way that makes them believe that that was all of theirs, to begin with. And therefore, if that gets shared, it gets registered as a loss, rather than an equitable redistribution.
[35:10] Sean: That reminds me of another conversation I was having around diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is that there’s also, especially, I think with people in power, people in privilege, including myself, I should be very honest, as humans we have this tendency to go towards what’s easy, what’s convenient. And over time, because of these conveniences, you get into this fixed pie mindset. And that’s also, in my opinion, the root of the problem, because it’s not a fixed pie, clearly. When we can win together, we can create more. And it’s not just for the sake of creating more. I’m not talking about materialism. I’m saying create more love, create more harmony, create more just peace. And it’s only when we think it’s a fixed pie that we start fighting each other, killing each other for things that are, frankly, not fixed. What are your thoughts on that?
[36:09] Michelle: I think that the world that we live in, that’s so steeped in capitalism, white supremacy, all these really violent forces, have manufactured this sense of artificial scarcity. And I see this even in my work when it comes to talking about certain issues that are impacting certain communities. I hear a lot of fear around there not being enough attention spreading across all the different issues, that people are feeling like we are constantly moving from one trauma to another, that we’re not actually able to allow space for all of us to be acknowledged for our pain and for us to be able to grieve.
And in the world where everything moves so quickly and everything is instantaneous and then everybody moves on from whatever the trending topic was, I think it’s so easy for us to feel that way. I think it’s so easy for us to say that, no, there isn’t enough space for us to be able to grieve this one. Now, we have to move on to this topic, and then that topic, that topic. But that’s not how grief works. That’s not how we are able to heal. So, in some ways, I think that scarcity mindset goes even beyond the materialistic things that we’re talking about, to your point, to something that feels a lot more human in terms of the emotions that we have to experience with time.
And I also feel that sometimes there is this misconception around how talking about one community’s issue means that we can’t talk about another community’s issue simultaneously. So, I saw this a lot during the Black Lives Matter movement when anti-Asian violence was steadily rising. And it was really difficult for a lot of people to hold both things at the same time and to be able to link those two movements together. So, when I started talking about the importance of fighting anti-blackness inside the Asian community, I got a lot of messages. Some were supportive, but some were also voicing concern. Some people said, how could you be talking about Black Lives Matter when our people are dying? How about us? What about our pain? And I felt so much sadness reading those comments because I understand where that’s coming from, because in this country, the particular flavor of oppression that a lot of Asian people face has been one of erasure, where our pain gets invalidated, trivialized, minimized, and just straight up ignored. So, I understand the fear around, yet again, we’re going to experience erasure.
And what also dawned on me was that people didn’t see my fighting against anti-blackness as being related to our issue, which was also deeply saddening, because when I show up for Black Lives Matter, again, it’s not just because I care about the black people in my life. It’s also because I understand that the source of anti-black racism is white supremacy, that’s the same force that’s killing our people, too. So, when I show for the black community, I’m actually actively and consciously fighting for my people.
And I wish that more people were drawing these explicit connections between different movements, that we have shared groups of oppression, that when we show up for one community, it doesn’t mean that we leave our other communities behind, but that we’re actively having to have these conversations to help connect the dots to see that all of our struggles are actually connected, and that there is no one singular fight that we’re fighting, because when we talk about Asian issues, that includes people like me who are women, who are queer. So, by fighting Asian issues, you’re also having to reckon with misogyny, patriarchy, transphobia, queer phobia, homophobia. So, I wish that more people could think of these issues as all being connected and intertwined so that we don’t live these siloed lives, these siloed compartmentalized struggles. And this is a quote that I remember from Audre Lorde who says there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because no one lives single issue lives.
[40:51] Sean: I have a question that I’ve been waiting to ask someone like you, who might be able to help me understand this better. I think that the goal for humanity is for us to not see colors, different skin colors. It’s weird to say that. Correct me if I’m wrong. What I mean by that is to recognize each other’s uniqueness, but also recognize our shared humanity, that we’re all skeleton underneath. Our skin, the same structure. How do we engage in race discussions and fight oppression without excluding—making people feel excluded? Say, for example, plenty of my white friends are people that I know. They’re good people. They are allies. And yes, they are sometimes, or many times, complicit in what’s going on. But how do we not make them feel excluded, like this is a war against white people, like colored people against white people? That’s not the case. How do we think about that? How do you think about that?
[42:08] Michelle: So, your comment about the goal being ultimately how do we not see color, how do we not differentiate our experiences based on color, I think that, if we could get to a place where our skin color or race has nothing to do with our ability to live safely and with the same opportunities as everybody else, then I think, perhaps, we could get to a place where we don’t have to talk about race. But the truth of the matter is race still plays such a key role in determining somebody’s ability to live with safety and freedom and access to opportunities in this country and in the world, that it has to become a part of the conversation.
So, now, then how do we have these conversations without alienating certain groups of people, especially when it comes to racism, white people, and when we’re talking about sexism, men, and people who hold privileges? And I think that the way that, one, we talk about these isms and people who may be well-intentioned but who are susceptible to causing harm, we are so quick to use binary thinking that robs all of us of the opportunity to be in the complexity together. Meaning, we as a society have been trained to think of people as either good or bad. You’re either a good person or you’re a bad person. You’re either a racist or you are not. You’re either a sexist or you’re not. And because of those binary categories, it becomes so incredibly difficult for us to admit when we’ve actually done harm and when we’ve caused a mistake. And it becomes really scary because, as society, we know what happens to those bad people. We shame them. We excommunicate them. We banish them. We literally disappear them. If we decide that somebody is a criminal, we disappear them into prisons. That’s how we are growing up, believing that bad people must be disappeared, and all of us who are not bad people are good people, and we have to do everything in our power to not be seen as one of those bad people.
So, when we are receiving feedback that we have mistakenly caused harm or we have unintentionally harmed someone, it’s so hard for us to accept it because that must mean that we are part of the bad people list. And so, I want us to get out of the mindset that there is some type of profile that shows these are the racists and these are not, because at any moment, we could be engaging in behaviors that are considered racist. So, even though I say I am an ally to the disability community, when I post something on Instagram without also providing alt text, like an image description, text base, image description for people who are blind, if I don’t provide that, then in that moment, I am not practicing allyship. In that moment, actually, my behavior is ableist. So, how can we sit with that discomfort of knowing that we are not one dimensionally good or bad but that we are just human beings capable of any actions that could be beneficial or harmful to communities that we are looking to be in solidarity with?
So, it’s not about excluding anyone from these conversations, but that we all, every single person needs to practice accountability because we want to be a part of the conversation. And I think there’s also a degree of—and I love this word but I hate this word because it comes with a lot of connotations—fragility that I think we need to reckon with. And I’ll use myself as an example. So, it’s easy for me to think of my life as a series of overcoming different challenges. I’m a queer person. I’m a woman of color. I’m an immigrant to this country. I grew up on a low income. And look at all the challenges that I’ve overcome to get to where I am today. Versus thinking about the other side of my story that I call hidden stories that I have not lived but are still part of my narrative. Meaning, I remember when I was called a dike on the street. I remember that day very clearly. I remember the stares that I received when I was holding a woman’s hand on the street or kissing her.
But you know what I don’t ever have to remember because I didn’t live it? Is ever being in fear of never making it to the date because I thought a cop was going to pull over and shoot me. Because I’m not a black person, I don’t experience anti-black racism. Or when I go through the TSA checkpoint, I don’t ever have to worry about being mis-gendered and being patted down by a man because my gender identity is congruent with the sex that I was assigned at birth. And because of my gender expression, no one ever thinks of me as other than the identity that I identify as, which is a woman.
So, these are the experiences that I’ve not lived that have also influenced my life without me knowing. And these are my privileges that I hold. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t struggle with all of these other parts of my identity. But it does mean that I didn’t have to struggle in a particular way that other people have had to. So, we have the capacity to hold these multiple truths at the same time and to see our lives with this clear honesty, so that we can actually practice accountability without realizing our privileges have been weaponized to harm other people or that we’ve been benefiting from systems of oppression that have been harming other people.
So, I want more people who may feel this movement is just trying to exclude me to actually calm down their defenses and start to listen to what is actually being said, because it’s not that we want to exclude anyone. It’s more that we all need to be very honest about what it is that we’re trying to create so that we can all live in a world where, no matter who you are, what your identities are, you are seen as being worthy of respect, love, joy, and freedom. And it’s as simple as that. So, if we can all agree that that’s a true statement that we all believe in, then we all have a role to play in making that happen in our own little corners of the world.
And I also think that there’s this misunderstanding around the term, “white supremacy,” being seen as people talking about white people, like dismantling white supremacy means dismantling white people. But those are not the same things. When I talk about white supremacy, I mean this very dictionary definition of white supremacy is one that believes… It’s this myth that believes that white people, whiteness as a race, is superior to all other races. And therefore, white people should have dominance over people of color.
And that myth could sure show up in the most extreme violent case, like the KKK and the Nazis. But it’s also in the small details that we live every single day, like when people told me that I need to adopt an English name or a white-sounding name when I came to this country because there is a very research preference around English-sounding names over ethnic-sounding names when it comes to job hunting and people giving you the respect that you deserve, or when people told me that I need to lose my accent in order to succeed. These are smaller examples of white supremacy culture in which whiteness is being preferred and seen as superior to all other racial characteristics. So, that’s when I say dismantle white supremacy, it’s not saying, all white people, get out of my way. It’s questioning how every single one of us, including people of color, have ingested the messages of white supremacy in such a way that we are continuing to uphold this myth over and over again.
[50:46] Sean: My last question is around cancel culture, looking at the other side. And by the other side, I mean the other extreme, in some ways. Because, we don’t want to so quickly label people when they make a mistake, to your point. We want people to be able to reflect and change and improve and do better every day, not be perfect. How do we reconcile that?
[51:15] Michelle: Oh, goodness. I did unpack cancel culture in the book. So, I’ll be brief. Cancel culture, I feel, has become synonymous with people on social media taking down somebody for the most innocuous mistakes. And I want us to be clear about how we’re using that term, because for me, canceling someone, I would rather call it a public boycott that people engage in, in order to de-platform or remove power from people or institutions that have been abusing their power for a very long time without any accountability. So, when it comes to people who have been causing harm and who’ve been abusing their power to cause harm onto marginalized people over and over and over again over the course of multiple years with no accountability, and that the only way that has been effective to create any semblance of accountability is public boycott, that to me is very different than my friend inadvertently using an insensitive word while telling a story and causing a one-time mistake that causes harm. Those are two very different contexts. And I want us to be more discerning about how we are viewing these situations as different. So, let’s not equate two scenarios and say cancel culture is categorically bad.
Because I think the people who are most afraid of practicing any level of accountability has done a fantastic job of sensationalizing this concept of cancel culture, to a point where we are not able to distinguish between when public boycotting is necessary versus when that becomes too blunt of a tool for us to call each other in when we are trying to practice accountability in an interpersonal setting with people who are causing… who are making mistakes in a way that’s not the same as abuse over the course of a long time. So, I think that discernment is important.
And I also believe that, in order for us to practice this non-binary culture of shaming and writing people off as bad or good, we need to be able to practice what it looks like for us to repair harm and to practice accountability, starting with ourselves. I think we talk so much about calling other people out and holding other people accountable, but what I’m more interested in is creating a culture where I want to practice accountability, because this is what I care about. I want to live in alignment with my values. So, before anyone calls me out, I’m going to call myself out, and I’m going to do my part to repair the harm that I’ve caused. So, instead of being so preoccupied with the sensationalized version of cancel culture, what can I do today to practice accountability, starting with myself? And how does that ripple out to creating a culture where we don’t have to wait for other people to call us out on things because we are practicing living our lives in a way that is in alignment with our values and we are the people that we say we want to be?
[54:37] Sean: Thank you for sharing that. That is very powerful. I love having these conversations because they just remind me to do better every day. That’s what’s easy for me to remember. Every time I interact with my wife—and we’re expecting a baby girl soon—soon, my daughter, I want the world to be more inclusive, more equitable for my daughter, for everyone’s daughters, for all women. And it’s crazy because I grew up not that long ago, two decades ago, in a culture where it was not very inclusive. And I grew up in Michigan, too. And the things we used to grow up with—I laugh with my wife all the time—I just am reminded of the things that we used to say or joke about without thinking twice has such a huge impact, not just on other people, on harming other people, but actually harming ourselves. Because, without that awareness that you’re actually causing harm, you’re actually hurting yourself, too.
I can’t find the words to describe it. I think you would be a lot more eloquent about it. But what I mean by that is it’ll affect my relationship with my wife, for example, in the long-term. If I’m not treating her with respect by talking badly about other women, actually, it reflects my own actions towards her, that’s the things that I find. And just even recently, she’s pregnant, things like she feels a certain way, and I’ve been taught slowly that those are her feelings. I can’t refute them. I shouldn’t refute them. I have feelings, too. And I don’t want anybody to refute my feelings, like, “Sean, you shouldn’t feel that way.” Well, I felt it, you know.
[56:26] Michelle: Right.
[56:27] Sean: And I’m really starting to recognize that and respect that, because that Ashley initially made me feel like, if I don’t refute it, if I don’t change her mind about it, Ashley makes everything worse. It’s like, no, when we don’t let people feel what they feel and be true to themselves, that actually makes things worse.
Because, in many ways, I think we have lost a trust in each other’s abilities to do the things that you say we can do, that we’re all capable of. And in that way, losing trust in our fellow human beings, we’re, in essence, losing trust in humanity, in our own humanity.
[57:11] Michelle: So well said.
[57:13] Sean: Thank you for sharing everything that you’ve shared.
[57:16] Michelle: It’s my pleasure.
[57:16] Sean: Well, okay. So, on these last notes, we’ll definitely include a link to the book. Is there anything else you want… We don’t want to obviously give the whole book away. I want people to read it. I’m going to go… Actually, is it on Audible, by the way?
[57:32] Michelle: Yes.
[57:33] Sean: Perfect.
[57:34] Michelle: it’s on Audible. And I actually narrated the book.
[57:36] Sean: Oh, I’m excited.
[57:37] Michelle: I had to audition for it. I auditioned for it, and they said I’m good enough to read my own book. So, it’s in my voice.
[57:47] Sean: I’m so excited. I’m a big reader. But ever since having a kid, I live in Audible (laughs).
[57:55] Michelle: I enjoy audiobooks a lot.
[57:57] Sean: And to have it be narrated by you… I just found it, here it is. I’m buying it right now.
[58:03] Michelle: Amazing.
[58:05] Sean: All right. So, we’ll put a link in the episode for everyone. I really hope that we have another opportunity to speak again and talk more about this.
[58:12] Michelle: Yeah.
[58:13] Sean: Were there any parting thoughts you wanted to give to our audience or our listeners?
[58:17] Michelle: I’ve been saying this a lot because we live in such a trying time. I am reminded of the fortune cookie that I got when I was in consulting that I held on to. So, shout out to Panda Express for inspiring the masses. My fortune cookie’s fortune said, “Don’t give into cynicism.” And I received that message at a time when I felt incredibly jaded about the kinds of possible change that I could expect to see in my lifetime. And I felt like everybody thought that I was being so naive and so idealistic about the kind of change that I wanted to see in the workplace.
And I think holding onto hope is such a powerful and courageous thing for us to do, and to remember that change is indeed possible, and it’s not only possible, but that it’s happening every single day all around us. And I think of Mariame Kaba, black abolitionist, somebody who I really admire and look up to and learn from. Her quote is, hope is a discipline. And that’s the thought that I want to leave folks with, because I think we need a lot of hope these days, and to remember that a better world, a more just, inclusive, safe, equitable world is possible, and that it is being built right now by so many people with the same vision. So, don’t lose hope. Don’t give into cynicism. Claim the corner of your life and the world that you’re in charge of. And make that your frontline where you do the work to create change that you want to see.
[01:00:00] Sean: And yourself first.
[01:00:02] Michelle: And yourself first.
[01:00:03] Sean: Yeah, I love that. I really love that. That makes me feel personally empowered, versus keep on looking at other people. It’s like, why aren’t you doing? Why aren’t you changing, right?
[01:00:15] Michelle: That’s right.
[01:00:14] Sean: It’s like, “Well, let me work on me. Let’s all lead by example.”
[01:00:18] Michelle: Yes.
[01:00:19] Sean: Thank you so much, Michelle, for being the leader. It was a real pleasure having you on the podcast. Can’t wait to have you back.
[01:00:25] Michelle: Thank you so much.
[01:00:26] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. Enjoyed our show today? Please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review.
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